§ 5.1 pm
§ The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar)
I beg to move,
That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.The House will be aware that British Coal has on the table with the unions a package which includes a lump sum payment of £6,000, the contractualisation of British Coal's basic generous redundancy terms, existing pay rates and the introduction of flexible working arrangements. That is a generous offer to British Coal employees which helps to provide some certainty for the future. While the great bulk of redundancy payments are, of course, financed by restructuring grants, that package is a matter for British Coal and the unions.
The draft order laid before the House is the eighth annual order under section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1987 and has three main purposes. First, it specifies the kinds of expenditure in the present financial year for which grant may be paid. These are set out in the schedule to the order and are unchanged from those specified last year. Secondly, the order sets the maximum percentage of relevant expenditure which may be met by grant. The Government have decided that the maximum rate for 1994–95 should remain at 90 per cent. Thirdly, the order increases the cumulative ceiling for payments of restructuring grant from £2,500 million to £3,000 million, as permitted under the Coal Industry Act 1992.
I will explain the third purpose in more detail. The 1987 Act, as amended by the Coal Industry Act 1992, limits the cumulative provision for restructuring grant to £2,500 million, increasable by order up to £3,000 million. At the end of 1992–93, cumulative restructuring grant paid to British Coal was some £1,900 million. During 1993–94, British Coal made claims for restructuring grant amounting to more than £740 million. If all those claims had been met, the cumulative total paid since 1987 would have been £2,640 million. Due to the current ceiling of £2,500 million, grant claims of £140 million for 1993–94 remain unpaid, the expenditures involved having been funded temporarily by voted loans to the corporation. Further claims for some £110 to 120 million are expected in relation to 1993–94 costs. Those expenditures, already incurred in 1993–94, would imply the need for an increase in the cumulative ceiling to over £2,750 million.
As hon. Members will be aware, the provision for restructuring grant in this year's supply estimates is £425 million. A major part of that provision will be taken up by the £250 million or more of expenditure incurred by British Coal last year, for which grant will be paid this year if the House approves the current order. It is too early to say what further eligible expenditure may be incurred in the current financial year, although we have already received a claim for £6 million in respect of job losses in April.
I hope that that explanation will assist the House and I look forward to listening to the debate. I commend the order to the House.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
As you would imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not propose to divide the House on the order, although it would be wrong to assume that the Opposition necessarily give it an unalloyed welcome.
As ever these days, we speak about the coal industry against the background of a further decline in numbers to about 14 pits and 10,000 men working in them. There are also prospects of further reductions, although we do not know how many or what form they will take. If there have to be further redundancies between now and any privatisation date, we would hope that those redundancies would be treated in a similar manner to those that have already occurred. However, we know that the redundancy proposals have been withdrawn in their present form.
One of the main concerns—to which the Minister referred—is the package currently being offered to miners. One of the hallmarks of industrial relations since the miners' strike has been the understandable reluctance of the National Union of Mineworkers to participate in talks with British Coal. For miners who are members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, discussions have continued and a number of settlements have been reached, although in many instances those who did not participate felt that they could have done far better had they been given a proper opportunity.
The package to which the Minister alluded does not even satisfy the Union of Democratic Mineworkers: in a ballot of its members, the agreement was rejected by some 93 per cent. of those who participated in the negotiations. That ballot was significant because it showed that not even members of the UDM were prepared to accept that package which was designed, if I may use the euphemism, "to promote flexible working". What is on offer is a sum of £6,000, subject to taxation, if the men are prepared to sign undertakings that they will change the nature of the working arrangements, which will mean abandonment of agreed working hours and the possibility of having to work up to 13 hours a day as a consequence of accepting the agreement.
There are grave misgivings on the part of a number of those involved in the mining industry. I need go no further than the opinion of the general secretary of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, Peter McNestry, who has repeatedly made the point about the inherent dangers of additional working hours, not just in terms of the possibility of exhaustion causing mistakes and lack of care, but because of the very fast cutting equipment at the coal face and the greater exposure to industrial dust and other pollutants down there. Exposure is increased and the danger to men increases as a consequence. However, we are led to believe that if the £6,000 is accepted all those other considerations will be set aside.
Opposition Members feel that such a move is designed more to make the coal industry attractive to potential purchasers than to make it safe and healthy for the men currently employed in it. We therefore have grave misgivings about the proposal and we understand only too well why the men who have had the opportunity to vote on it have rejected it and why others are in no way sympathetic to it.
It is perhaps a sign of the despair of British Coal in such matters that a recent edition of Coal News, the official 986 organ of British Coal, said that the colliery managers union had come out in favour of the proposal. The significant factor is that the colliery managers are not subject to any constraints on the number of hours that they work anyway, so it is almost academic to ask them. Anybody who is offered £6,000, even if he has to pay tax on it, will not turn it down if it involves no sacrifice on his part. However, the numbers concerned and the people concerned are not really relevant to discussion of the proposal today.
We are led to believe that there are some assurances in the package in relation to redundancy payments. However, as I understand it from legal advice received by some of the unions, there are grave misgivings about whether the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 provisions extend beyond 12 weeks after a change of ownership of an undertaking. We are conscious that within the financial provisions of the order there is money available to finance part of the package, but we find the package to be wanting in a number of respects and I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will return to the matter in due course.
It is worth putting on record that an agreement on pensions has been reached between the trustees and the Government, and that many of the problems that we debated during the passage of the Coal Industry Bill appear to have been resolved. What is at stake here is the funding of the interim arrangements for men who have had to leave the industry and whose pension payments are not yet covered by the pension fund proper. We express our relief that an agreement has been reached which is to the satisfaction of the pensioners, the prospective pensioners and the trustees of the pension scheme.
Perhaps the Minister, who was helpful in his introduction, will spell out exactly how much of the sums involved will be accounted for this year. Perhaps he will tell us a little more about how much money will be made available to British Coal Enterprise. Although many of us have been somewhat less than fulsome in our praise for British Coal Enterprise, we recognise that when the coalfield communities are in a state of economic depression, any assistance available to communities and to individuals for retraining or for help in starting their own businesses will be welcomed.
We want to know two things: how much will the sums be, and will there be any new money? We know that a fair amount of the funding of British Coal Enterprise is now accounted for by the repayment of loans and the recycling of moneys. How much will the retraining budget be? If any area of British Coal Enterprise activities needs to be looked at, it is retraining. We are very conscious that some of the areas in which colliery closures have taken place are now denuded of virtually any economic activity. The important and valuable skills that were won at the coal face and underground are, sadly, not marketable in the changed environment. We hope that there will be sufficient funds to support retraining in those areas and we should like to know the sums involved.
We are concerned that there is great uncertainty about the future of British Coal Enterprise. The Minister was unable to give us assurances about that when we debated the Coal Industry Bill in Committee. I repeatedly have to tell councillors in my area, where there are a number of unemployed mineworkers, that British Coal Enterprise is still in business. During the passage of the Coal Industry Bill, there was a feeling that British Coal Enterprise would be finished shortly afterwards. We recognise that it may 987 not have a life in perpetuity, but we are very conscious of the need for information about how long it will continue, what its future funding is likely to be and the possibility of new money. There is considerable anxiety about those matters and a great need for more resources to be made available.
This is one of the last—perhaps the last—coal restructuring orders if privatisation goes through. In some respects, it is a reflection on the sad state of the industry that we have to talk in terms of the significance of measures to try to mop up unemployment and of softening up the labour force before privatisation with the removal of the struts that have supported the coal industry and industrial relations within it for so long.
It is a matter of considerable regret that British Coal is trying, apparently with Government support, to buy back from the men many of the important concessions that have been won over the years. Those concessions cannot be measured against the price that the board and the Government seem to place on them. It is not wise to encourage men to work longer hours underground; that is a profoundly dangerous road to take. In other countries, it has resulted in a dramatic increase in industrial injuries. When those longer hours are combined with the change in the health and safety arrangements, and the change that is likely as a consequence of the ending of deputies and the ending of regular independent assessment of the safety provisions within colleries, one becomes extremely suspicious and worried about the future of the industry. Although it employs only 10,000 people, for many communities it is still one of the few sources of employment of a standard that we want to defend, not necessarily to the death, but certainly to the hilt.
We do not intend to vote against the order, although we have a number of misgivings about its contents, and we regret that it will be one of the last of its kind. We hope that the points that my hon. Friends will make, along with mine, will go some way towards persuading British Coal and the Government to think again about a package that we consider to be dangerous and unhelpful to the industry and more likely to poison the well in advance of privatisation. We have a number of misgivings about privatisation. We do not believe that it is necessary and we do not wish it well, but we do not want the hands of the workers to be tied in any way before privatisation. The order and the package to which the Minister has alluded are likely to result in a deterioration in conditions and in the protection that the workers currently enjoy. That deterioration is regrettable and objectionable; as other financial provisions are contained in the order, however, we shall not oppose it. Nevertheless, I make it clear to the Minister that we do not offer our approval for what he is offering today.
§ Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
The order is called the Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order, but many of us from coalfield communities in Nottinghamshire and across the country feel that the coal industry has had enough restructuring recently. I remind the Minister that in Nottinghamshire there were 40,000 miners in 1980; there are fewer than 4,000 now.
The morale in the coal industry and in the coalfield communities has never been lower, and the order reaffirms the problems. The Minister told the House that the package 988 on the table for discussion with the unions came specifically from British Coal. I wish to challenge him on two points.
First, the package is no longer on the table with the unions. British Coal is blackmailing individual miners to sign by this time tomorrow or lose any financial rights. Those are the tactics which are going on, and there are letters in Nottinghamshire pits today telling miners in clear terms that if they do not sign on the dotted line they will lose tremendous amounts of money. Miners have been told that this is a once and final offer, and that British Coal is not in a position to make a better offer because the real offer is coming from the Government.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us today whether he has had discussions about the redundancy package, and whether he received advice from British Coal. Perhaps he will tell us what specific advice he had from British Coal, because there is a strong view within the coal industry that the managers of British Coal want to do better for the work force than the offer that is on the table, but they have been denied the resources by the Government. Yet the order provides money to the Government to give to British Coal. Clearly, if there was a will, there would be a way to make more money available for miners.
The package on offer to miners is bad in many, many ways. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said, it demands longer hours. The package demands 12 to 13-hour shifts, which cannot be right in a modern society with high unemployment and, in particular, immense unemployment among ex-miners. We ought to be reducing the hours worked underground. It is also unfair in the sense that miners have to give up their two years' pay claim. The £6,000 lump sum will be taxed and they will take home about £3,400. That is perhaps the equivalent of the two years' pay claim, but it is not the generous settlement to which the Minister referred today.
We are told that the package will last beyond privatisation. Perhaps the Minister will be specific tonight and say what the situation will be for miners if a private company goes bankrupt. Will that offer still stand? Will miners still get the money? The answer seems to be no, but perhaps the Minister will tell us, because we need to know, and the men and their families need to know. What about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations? If the package is agreed, how long will the TUPE regulations and the force of law last beyond the privatisation of British Coal? Will not the new mine owners in fact be able to renegotiate the package quickly, perhaps within a year of the privatisation of the pits?
Those are the difficulties involved in the package. The real difficulty is that it has taken the guts out of the mining industry, and it has taken the morale of the men away. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that. In Nottinghamshire up to now, productivity in the pits has constantly gone up. However, the men feel that they are not getting a fair deal and are being treated like dogs and, because of that, productivity is now going down. Clearly, that will cast a blight on privatisation.
The package has been resoundingly thrown out by ordinary miners in Nottinghamshire. They say very strongly that they are not getting a fair deal. I will give the House the example of Stephen Tuck, who works at Bilsthorpe colliery. His father Bert worked there before him, and set up the National Union of Mineworkers at Bilsthorpe colliery. His sons have followed in the family tradition. Stephen Tuck does roof bolting at Bilsthorpe 989 colliery—something the Minister knows about. He works in a team with contractors and, in fact, is the supervisor of three contractors. He is a British Coal man, but the men he works with are contractors. They used to work for British Coal and received redundancy payments of £40,000, yet they are still working in the industry alongside Stephen Tuck. He says, quite rightly, that he wants to leave British Coal, and he has been asking for his redundancy for some time, but the corporation will not let him go. Yet the lads whom he is supervising have received £40,000.
There are all kinds of stories like that from people who want to set up their own businesses. Adrian Button wants to come out of the industry. He has set up on a part-time basis a small business which is becoming successful drilling and looking after the roadway in Bilsthorpe colliery. He wants to come out, but the pit manager at British Coal will not let him. It is not surprising that people are saying that they have been locked into a new kind of slavery.
The package currently on the table is a new, modern slavery, and it is keeping men in the industry who want to come out. It is unfair and inequitable because the miners' colleagues and comrades, who had a better chance just a few weeks ago, have had far better offers. The Minister really ought to think again, because the money contained in the order would allow other ways of dealing with the men. There has been a strong voice from Nottinghamshire, which I know that the Minister has heard, in the run-up to privatisation. In all decency, the Minister ought to treat all the men the same. The day before the industry becomes privatised, he ought to pay the men off under the old terms. There are currently 10,000 men in the industry. I do not know whether there will be 10,000 men in the industry at the point of privatisation, but I know that the average redundancy pay-out under the old scheme was £25,000. That would mean £25 million in total, so there is enough money in the order to meet the aspirations of people in the coalfields in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere.
The men and their families have had a tough time. Many of them have given their lives to British Coal, to their coalfield and to their community, and they are not getting a fair deal. I remind the Minister that promises were made, particularly to the miners in Nottinghamshire. There is a strong feeling that they have been betrayed, and that the Minister has turned his back on them and walked away. They want a new and fairer future. The Minister must think again about the redundancy package, give the men a fair chance and move towards bringing new industry, new employment and a new future to the coalfield communities.
That is why the questions that the Minister is being asked about the future of British Coal Enterprise are so important. Will the Minister tell the House today whether British Coal Enterprise will last, not just for a little time beyond the privatisation but into the future? The devastation in the coalfield communities means that we need measures to tackle problems which could last for five, 10 or 15 years. The industry has been there for a long time, and men have given their lives to it for a long time: now is the time for the Minister to play fair with them.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
It gives me very little satisfaction that so many of my constituents should have to be the beneficiaries of the enhanced redundancy payments for which the order provides, but they are in that position because of the tragic closure of Ellington colliery. The closure came after those involved had been led to expect that, with a Government subsidy, they had a 15-month breathing space in which to prepare for privatisation.
The hope is still kept alive that the colliery will reopen following privatisation, and I expect the Minister to continue to mount every possible effort to see that that can be successfully carried through. I believe that the pit has a future, but tonight we must consider the position of those who are involved in the redundancy package. I must underline to the Minister that a number of people did not benefit from the enhanced redundancy package. When so much public money is involved, as there is in the order, it is incumbent on the Minister not to stand completely back from the way in which British Coal handles that public money.
I have had occasion to put to the Minister the position of some of those people who were put on to contract, in my view under a degree of duress, and who therefore became employees of contractors shortly before the closure of Ellington colliery. As a result, they did not get the enhanced redundancy package available to those employed at the colliery on the day of closure. The Minister wrote to me saying that the detailed arrangements were a matter for British Coal. However, when what appears to be a significant injustice involving public money has occurred, the Minister should take a closer interest than that shown in his letter.
Stories abound of people put under pressure to cease to be British Coal employees and to become contract employees. I want to quote a letter from someone who was affected in that way, but first I want to quote a letter from Mr. Neil Clarke, the chairman of British Coal. On 4 March he wrote to me saying:I cannot accept that any employee at Ellington was pressured or coerced to accept redundancy where their jobs were identified as surplus to requirements. All such employees were counselled in the usual way and, in every case, were offered either alternative employment at the mine or the opportunity to accept redundancy on the terms available at the time.That is not what happened. Mr. Clarke persists in describing something very different from what is happening in the real world. He went on to say:Those accepting redundancy were certainly not 'transferred' to mining contracting companies by British Coal. I understand that a number applied to the companies concerned and were offered jobs following interviews.That is not a fair description of the position when people who work for British Coal one day find themselves the next day doing the same job in the same location in the same pit as an employee of a contractor, in a number of cases very much against their will.
One factor in the position of those workers was their belief that their pit had the future to which I referred earlier as a result of the Alcan contract and the subsidy for that contract. Once the men knew that the contract had 12 months to run and would be supplied with Ellington coal, there was a reasonable expectation that there would not be an immediate closure of the colliery. Everyone knows that 991 when a closure happens extra redundancy payments are made. No one with the knowledge that a pit would close within a few weeks would voluntarily transfer to contract.
Many people thought that the pit had at least another 12 months' future. They feel that the Minister's statement at the time was not only misleading but damaging because it led them to take a decision different from that which they would have otherwise have taken. Of course, they would have had considerable difficulty taking any other decision because of the pressure that they were put under.
I want to quote from a letter sent to me on behalf of two men. It states:After initially saying we would be able to remain in our own jobs with British Coal, management then changed their minds and said we were required to sign over to the new contractor. The next 9 weeks were a catalogue of threats, pressure and coercion by British Coal, from our supervisor through to senior management. We were told to accept the conditions or be sent down the pit with a shovel … Men from a nearby, recently closed colliery were to be offered our jobs if we didn't quickly accept terms (or so we were told!) An ex-shaftman who left the industry over five years ago was approached by management to come back to work for the contractor (as our replacements). Two underground joiners who are good friends of ours refused an offer to take over our positions"—these were positions in a different trade.We were told by our supervisor that the contractor had been told to fulfil his obligation immediately. This was later found to be untrue".The letter mentions a number of other points, but then goes on to say:We approached the personnel manager to let us know where we would be sent if we stayed with British Coal. 'This had not been fully explored', was his reply. We asked him to look into alternative jobs with British Coal for us and he agreed to do so. Two weeks later when we saw him again, he could not give us an alternative offer of work. However, he told us that if we didn't sign over, the contractors would be told to fulfil their contractual obligations immediately. We had no alternative at this stage, so very reluctantly, we signed over to contract . . To rub salt into our wounds, the announcement to close Ellington Colliery was made 2 weeks after we were forced out.A significant number of men were forced on to contracts by threats and duress. They were told that there would not be a job for them or that no job could be specified. I sent some details of that to the Minister and I must ask him to consider whether that was a reasonable way for British Coal to behave. It was not. It is not a reasonable way to dispose of public money to operate a scheme in so partial a way. The partiality arises because, far from men having voluntarily accepted transfer, they were coerced into that shortly before a closure was announced. Had they not transferred, they would have been significantly better provided for by the redundancy package.
To add further insult to injury, many of those men have subsequently been made redundant by the contractors to whom they signed over. They now find that they are not eligible for unemployment insurance on their mortgage. People who took out mortgage insurance policies are now told that they are not eligible for payment because they changed their jobs. I know that that has been said to someone who worked in the same job in the same pit but was simply transferred by British Coal to contract employment. It is a further injustice that I ask the Minister to consider.
As has already been mentioned, there were those at Ellington, as there were at other pits, who wanted to take redundancy but could not do so because their position was in demand. They may have wanted to set up their own businesses, but could not get a date for redundancy. There 992 are many injustices. The redundancy payments are about the only thing that stand between the local economic conditions of having the pit open and the disaster of it being closed. For a short time there is still a good deal of money around in the community, going into the shops and so on, but once the redundancy money has gone the real deprivation starts.
That is why the reference to British Coal Enterprise is significant, although it plays only a small part in what needs to be done for those areas. Nevertheless, we want its role to be adequately fulfilled. The only recipe to deal with the concerns that I have expressed tonight is that particular injustices should be corrected—as, I understand, they have been at the Wearmouth colliery, for example. British Coal Enterprise should be given every encouragement to work in areas where there are closures.
Every effort should be made to secure the future of Ellington pit, even though it would have a reduced work force. Further steps should be taken by all the relevant Government agencies to bring work to the area. A very serious position now faces south-east Northumberland, as with other former coalfield areas. Once again, I draw that to the Minister's attention.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
Reference has already been made to the fact that this may be the last coal restructuring debate. That may be so, but the Minister must accept that it certainly will not be the last coal debate because the problems that will remain after the privatisation measure goes through, if it does, will be so enormous that the House will have to return to the subject with the same frequency with which it has turned to the subject of coal over the past 15 years.
I see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), all of whom have taken part in or diligently attended coal debates throughout the years. We have heard and seen the Government change their position quite dramatically. For example, in the mid-1970s it was customary for some Conservative Back Benchers to take part in coal debates. They used to castigate the Labour Government if a colliery closed. In those days, they drew attention to colliery closures, yet we lost only about 1.5 per cent. of the pits.
In general, collieries were closed with the agreement and acceptance of the men who worked there. They were prepared to accept that a colliery should close when it was exhausted or if the men were working up to their waists or worse in water. If the circumstances in an individual pit were barbaric, the colliery closed. Now, we are not talking about men having to work up to their waists in water or about barbaric conditions. We are concerned about a system, which will govern our coal industry, which is in itself barbaric.
The Minister will probably say that the changes are an example of flexibility. Yet men have been compelled to accept a bribe to be enchained and to lose whatever capacity they had to decide for themselves the nature of their employment, whether they wished to work excessive hours, and whether they wished to question the erosion of the pattern and culture of safety which would be an inevitable consequence of the changes made by the Government.
993 The Minister has heard me make the point about safety before. He has refused to accept it throughout. The fact remains that the men responsible for safety underground believe that the changes that the Minister introduced are bound to erode the culture of safety, cause accidents and increase the proportion of men in the industry who are maimed or killed. The Minister has heard me say—I said it in his office as well as in the Chamber—that when, under the changes and the erosion of the safety culture, men are maimed and killed, he will have firmly on his conscience a substantial responsibility for those tragedies.
It is tragic that in the 1970s Conservative Members clamoured for the Labour Government to maintain the commitment to the Plan for Coal and investment in the industry. When we hear in coal debates about the astronomical sums that have been spent on the coal industry over the years, we have to understand that a substantial part of that expenditure was investment of historic importance. It meant that by the time we reached 1990, or the latter part of the 1980s, we had such a successful coal industry in Britain that it made other European coal industries look like incompetent failures. We had the highest rate of industrial success and increased productivity not merely in Britain or in the coal industry but in any industry in Britain or Europe in the past decade.
The consequence of that success has been record achievement, huge improvements in productivity and the provision for British industry of a significant base for industrial production and exports. The consequence has been the creation of a home market for engineering and all the other technological activities associated with successful deep mining. All that opportunity is being thrown away.
The taxpayers, or the politicians representing the taxpayers, were persuaded to approve the investment which secured the astonishing rates of improved productivity in the British mining industry. The Minister cannot deny that those rates of productivity were regarded as impossible at one time. The Minister nods his head, suggesting that he agrees with the point that I make. It is a pity that his superior, the President of the Board of Trade, still has not fully comprehended the scale of that achievement.
The fact remains that the thin-seam pits in the older part of our coalfields closed. There was investment in heavy duty equipment, which was put on to the coal face so that the coal could pour out on a scale and at a pace that could not have been imagined 20 years ago. Having achieved all that, we have now seen the industry virtually scrapped. Why? It has been scrapped because of the strange and foolish perversion of the electricity privatisation. The structure that was established made it inevitable that the coal industry would be disfigured. The outrageous nuclear payment to the French electricity generating industry has been maintained. British money pours across the channel to sustain highly subsidised French nuclear generation. That money could well have been used here in Britain.
The British industry has been cast aside while the German and Spanish industries have costs per tonne which are three times ours, but have Governments who are not so daft as to make the very short-sighted calculation that dominates the Minister's approach.
994 What is worse, as we have seen liberty in the mines eroded and the safety culture cast aside in the name of support for privatisation, we have seen damage to the employment prospects of many parts of our country. I have told the House before—it is a serious matter—that just a few weeks ago I met a group of 15-year-old boys from my area. They were decent, normal boys. We are talking not about boys with academic potential or boys who would be high-flyers, but about boys who would be ordinary, decent citizens. They see no prospect for them; they see no challenge; they see no hope.
What are we doing as a society to make 15-year-old young people see no prospect of economic viability or social success? It is inevitable that at least some of those boys will become crime statistics. The very nature and character of societies in the British coalfields have been disfigured and corroded in recent times. Bills to provide temporary dollops of money to assist the restructuring that should never have been necessary will not provide the Government with any political satisfaction.
I accept that if men are to change jobs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) said, we ought to have a fair and equitable system. We do not have such a system. The Minister should understand that, while it is fair to pay men who have been forced into redundancy, it is also essential to sustain the communities. Even with the provision of city grant, which is of some assistance, the spending capacity of the Deanne valley area has been reduced. Therefore, it is vital that the Government not only accept that European aid must go into the coalfields but recognise that coalfield areas have substantial needs when they distribute grants to local authorities to reward councils such as Westminster and Wandsworth, which enjoy a far greater affluence than the areas in which pits are being closed.
The Government must also recognise that we shall have to have another coal debate soon, not necessarily about the financial restructuring, but to resolve the serious problems that, at least so far, have been ignored in the privatisation arrangements. Those problems are as yet unresolved. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the recent case in south Wales and the effect of the cessation of pumping at abandoned mines. The environmental consequences could be catastrophic.
Perhaps the Minister would also consider that the environmental consideration to which I have referred can be matched by our deep anxiety about the future of greenfield sites which are subject to the risk of opencast mining by private business, given the power of compulsory purchase by a Government who are supposed to be fundamentally opposed to such disfigurements and who seem predisposed to give planning permission where the local community would not wish it to be granted. The House will have to return to those issues and others.
Although I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan was right to advise us not to vote against the measure, I hope that when the debate is over the Minister will be under no illusion that he enjoys massive support for his policies. He has no support among Opposition Members for a policy which has destroyed jobs, made Britain likely to enter energy dependence at a very early stage and has brought a great deal of ruin, hopelessness and blight to areas which deserved a great deal better, not least in view of the massive and magnificent improvements in productivity, which are unmatched in other areas of British or European industry.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The order covers the British Coal financial year from 1 April 1994 to 31 March 1995. I note that, in paragraph 6, there is an increase from £2.5 billion to £3 billion. The items listed under headings 1, 2 and 5 in the schedule to the order are included in paragraph 5(2)(b), but I note that the item listed under heading 6 is not. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that is significant.
I raise that matter because, although British Coal Enterprise has not created many lasting jobs in my constituency, its endeavours have overall been helpful. The organisation has the potential to create jobs—and every little helps. The Coal Industry Bill, which is now in another place, does not have a great deal to say on the matter, and I hope that the omissions from paragraph 5(2)(b) are not an indication that the Government intend to wind up British Coal Enterprise or to cut it adrift from funding.
There is still a great deal to be done to assist miners who are made redundant, and their communities. The last colliery to close in Barnsley was Grimethorpe. It is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett). Recently, research was carried out in the village of Grimethorpe by The Guardian. It was found that only 44 per cent. of men who had been made redundant had found other employment, and those miners who had managed to find employment were in low-paid jobs. Of course, that has dramatically affected the standard of living of miners and their families.
Through the provision of grants, the Government also make resources available under the new pneumoconiosis compensation scheme. That no-faults liability scheme was introduced into the coal industry in 1974. Since its introduction, it has been widened to cover asbestosis, and in some cases it includes payments for men suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. I should add that payments for the latter disease are made only in special circumstances, and I shall refer to them in a moment.
My concern is that the order does not provide more resources for the scheme so that the Minister can include in it the general disease of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The pneumoconiosis scheme provides for the payment of a lump sum based on the assessed degree of disability and the age of the miner at the determined date of development. If the miner has attendant chronic bronchitis and emphysema and the medical authority contends that it has worsened as a result of pneumoconiosis, an additional award is made. That additional award will trigger off a further payment under the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme—and that is only right and proper.
The House will be aware that in September 1993 the Secretary of State for Social Security prescribed chronic bronchitis and emphysema as an industrial disease for coal miners. His decision to prescribe the disease was based on a report that he received in August 1992 from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which clearly accepted that there was a connection between the disease and the inhalation of coal dust. The indication is that coal miners are subjected to precisely the same risk of contracting chronic bronchitis and emphysema as they are of contracting pneumoconiosis. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that he is prepared, under the order, to make money available to the pneumoconiosis 996 scheme to cover chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It is essential that that is done while the industry is still in the public sector, and before privatisation.
Another omission from the order is grants to clean up pollution from abandoned mine workings. I raise that issue in the light of the assurance given in the House of Lords by Lord Strathclyde as reported in the Official Report of 26 April at column 539. He said that the prevention of pollution from abandoned mine workings must be a top priority. That assurance is relevant to the order because Lord Morris suggested, at column 1064 of the Official Report of 3 May, that pumping operations that had ceased since October 1992 should, where there were signs of pollution, be resumed. Can the Minister tell the House whether the order makes provision to cover such circumstances?
Furthermore, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what action he intends to take to avert an environmental disaster building up at Worsborough reservoir in my constituency? That has been brought about by a decision taken by British Coal in October 1993 to cease water pumping at nearby abandoned mine workings, thereby substantially reducing the flow of water to the reservoir. That is creating a threat to the wildlife—the flora and fauna—around the river that runs towards the reservoir, as well as to the fish life in the reservoir.
As the Minister said, British Coal is seeking to buy out the terms and conditions of the remaining mineworkers for £6,000. That is a cynical ploy—and the Minister must be aware of it—to strip mineworkers of the protection that they have under current legislation, and to render them vulnerable to any terms and conditions that successor private owners may wish to impose. A much more honourable way of tackling the situation would have been to offer the remaining mineworkers a redundancy payment before the industry is privatised. Perhaps even at this late stage the Minister will consider doing that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) suggested. The miners have been given until tomorrow to make up their minds on the issue. I can see nothing whatever in the order to cover such payments.
It would be an enormous boost if the Minister could tell the House that he is prepared to make redundancy payments available to the remaining mineworkers before privatisation. The number of mineworkers in the industry who have not received redundancy payments cannot be more than between 7,000 and 8,000. If the Minister were prepared to make that announcement today, it would give an enormous boost to mineworkers and their families.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) spoke of miners claiming for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. I asked various hon. Members who represent coalfield constituencies, but cannot find anyone who has won his case. I can see one or two of my hon. Friends nodding. There seems to have been a bit of Government trickery to prevent those miners from getting any payments.
One thing will emerge from this short debate. If it is not in the Minister's domain, I hope that he will impress on the various Government Departments and the Minister responsible—I do not know whether the matter cuts across 997 social security—that the examinations are not being carried out properly and that miners cannot get through the net.
British Coal Enterprise is another aspect of this package of recommendations that I must mention. We debated the matter during the Report stage of the Coal Industry Bill. We all know that British Coal Enterprise is one of the organisations with administrators roaming the coalfields purporting to provide jobs. They actually say "job opportunities" and that is how they get away with it—they are not real jobs.
It is high time that the Government understood what we are dealing with. People in pit villages in some coalfields did not fully appreciate what mass unemployment was all about. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) referred to that. He comes from a coalfield where people did not appreciate the scale of unemployment in the Scottish and Welsh coalfields and in parts of the Yorkshire coalfields for many years. In Nottinghamshire and the bordering parts of Derbyshire, the pits were closed suddenly, all at once. In a string of villages along that coalfield, including some in Bolsover, unemployment is more than 50 per cent.
Instead of giving the money to British Coal Enterprise, allowing whiz kids to roam about in flash cars, posh suits and Italian shoes and spend God knows how much on carpeting their floors, it is time that the money was used to get jobs back to those coalfield areas. I can think of no better way to do so than by telling local authorities to use that money to repair roads and schools and start building houses. They could get some of those miners back to work, instead of paying them on average £9,000 a year to keep idle. We are spending £30 billion a year so that mass unemployment can continue under this Government.
Some of the pit villages are like bombs waiting to explode. That is the truth. People talk about the social fabric breaking down in Britain and we have only to look at some of those pit villages where thousands of people have suddenly been chucked out of work to understand that.
That brings me to the question of the contract and the £6,000. It is true that the Union of Democratic Mineworkers has thrown the proposal out by a 93 per cent vote. Frankly, I was amazed that its members voted in those numbers. Why do the Government and British Coal not understand? If 93 per cent. vote in a ballot against something, one would think that those in power would wake up to the idea that they do not want it, but they have blindly ignored the ballot and gone ahead.
What should be done about contracts and about unemployment in the coalfields and everywhere else? We should be talking about a four-day week—not for Parliament, but for the people in general. There will be no better opportunity; we should start it now, while we have mass unemployment.
I was looking at the contract the other week. Based on the number of hours that miners work now—the few that are left—they would have to work 51.5 weeks in the year under that contract, which means that they would have two or three days holiday instead of the normal holiday weeks and bank holidays. For surface workers, it would be 55 weeks, based on the hours that they work now. Imagine telling that to Members of Parliament. They have already 998 gone. Members of Parliament and Ministers will finish next Wednesday or Thursday for another fortnight. They have met for about seven months in the past year, yet they are telling miners that under the contract they will have to work the equivalent of 51.5 weeks underground. What a scandal.
Frankly, a lot of the things in this order want chucking out. We all know that a sum of money has to be paid to miners through various schemes and pensions and we know that that is necessary, otherwise we would vote against the order because of the parts about British Coal Enterprise, the contract and the £6,000.
Another thing that is not included, but ought to have been because we said it long and often enough during the Report stage of the Coal Industry Bill, and doubtless in the Standing Committee as well, is the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation—CISWO. Instead of giving the money to British Coal Enterprise, why was CISWO not given a sum equivalent to the amount that it fell short of when earlier measures were introduced?
For all those reasons we are faced with a list of measures that none of us can stomach, yet the order also provides for the sum of money to fund pensions and other necessary entitlements. Just before the privatisation of the coal industry we are engaged in a mopping up operation that will make the lives of people in pit communities even worse than they were before.
The real problem that the Government will have to face —a Labour Government—is how we can best get people back to work in those communities. The order will not provide that work.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Eggar
I am listening with my normal courtesy to the hon. Gentleman's sedentary contribution—if that is what it is. I much admire the anticipatory nature of his interventions.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) was kind enough to draw our attention to the very satisfactory conclusion that has been reached with regard to the agreement with trustees on the pensions issue. I appreciated the constructive way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House handled the issue. Perhaps all of us could learn a lesson from the way in which the House can assist a genuine discussion and negotiation, rather than hinder it, and the debate is a good example.
Some hon. Members referred to the transfer package. As I made clear at the beginning of the debate, the order does not relate directly to the package because it and the lump sum—£6,000 was mentioned—are a matter for British Coal, subject to the overall authorisation of its external financing requirements.
British Coal's offer is generous and amounts to a cost of £100 million for the lump sum payments. I must inform the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) that 10,000 times 25,000 is not 25 million, but 250 million. I understand that he enjoys the freedom of the Back Benches, but an error amounting to a multiple of 10 seems 999 slightly cavalier, even from an Opposition Back-Bencher. I am delighted to see a glint in the eye of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but I shall resist the temptation to retaliate in kind.
I listened with care to the points made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who is enjoying his conversation with the hon. Member for Bolsover. It is a matter for British Coal, but I shall make sure that the Hansard extract of his speech is brought to the attention of the chairman of British Coal because I am sure that the chairman would not want there to be any misunderstanding and will doubtless want to consider carefully what the right hon. Gentleman said.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The Minister spoke about the generosity of the package. Is it really as generous as he claims? It is £6,000, less tax which takes it down to a maximum of about £4,000. It involves two years without any pay rises and changes in working hours which will result in a reduction in the amount of money available from working overtime. Over four years the miners will be getting about £1,000 a year. Even making a generous estimate, £4,000 over two years is £48 a week. That is very little for changing their working hours, giving up the prospect of pay rises and losing overtime. It is not a generous offer by any stretch of the imagination.
§ Mr. Eggar
I assume that the hon. Member for Clackmannan has checked out his remarks with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who presumably will agree that £100 million of additional public expenditure is not adequate, thereby committing the Labour party in opposition to going way beyond that.
It is easy for Opposition Members to spend money like confetti and to make all kinds of commitments, but it is highly irresponsible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not make those observations if he were sitting on this side of the House.
§ Mr. Skinner
The Minister ought to understand that my hon. Friend is not asking for any more money. He is trying to tell the Minister that under a Labour Government there would not be such a package. We would not call upon miners to be blackmailed to the tune of less than £6,000 less tax and the rest of it in return for having to work longer hours and getting killed in the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), "I have just taken part in a debate in which I have saved you £100 million.". We would use the money to build some council houses or to provide work in another fashion. That is what he is saying.
§ Mr. Eggar
I am sure that the hon. Member for Clackmannan is as grateful as the rest of the House for that contribution from the hon. Member for Bolsover. I always enjoy his efforts at riding to the rescue of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, but that one does not wash.
At the end of the day, what would those men be doing? They would be producing coal which would be stockpiled because there is no market for it. What would the hon. Gentleman do with the stockpiles? How would he finance them?
§ Mr. Eggar
The hon. Gentleman really is tempting me to go way beyond the terms of the order, but he has not 1000 done his research. He should know perfectly well that steam coal imports that are suitable for electric generation have fallen by 25 per cent. this year on last year and that the bulk of imports into Britain comprise coking coal and other specialist coals, the bulk of which are not and, sadly, cannot be produced in this country.
The hon. Gentleman should also know that one of the major aims of the private sector mining companies is to increase as far as possible anthracite production and other specialist coal production for niche markets. Sadly, he has not welcomed that, but he should do so.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) caused me a certain amount of consternation. Normally, such matters are dealt with by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), but the hon. Gentleman seems to have taken over that mantle. He did some analysis of the order and compared paragraph 5(2)(b) with paragraph 6. The order is drafted in that way because if BCE were to make redundancies among its own employees, unless that drafting were followed it could benefit from the grant twice over, once under head 1 and once under head 6.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the funding for BCE. With the possible exception of the hon. Member for Bolsover, there is a general welcome for the work that BCE has done. The Government greatly value that work. We shall need to consider its longer-term future in the light of the overall employment position in the coalfields, and in the meantime the order would enable the funding of BCE to continue for a further year. In fact, we have received some suggestions from British Coal as to the future structure of BCE, which we are considering.
§ Mr. Clapham
I raised the possibility of chronic bronchitis and emphysema being included in the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme. The Minister will be aware that chronic bronchitis and emphysema is now prescribed and clearly accepted to be dust-related. There is, therefore, no difference in the risk of pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis and emphysema and it is only right and proper that it should be included in the scheme so that a man suffering from the disease can be compensated. Is there provision under the grant to include chronic bronchitis and emphysema sufferers within the scheme?
§ Mr. Hardy
It is a simple but serious question. The Minister appeared to be suggesting before he gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) that there was a reasonable amount of time and that the measure took us into 1995 —the next financial year. There are only 10 months of this year left and the wheels of Government sometimes grind extremely slowly. There is currently a lot of anxiety about BCE. Without wishing to twist his arm excessively, will he consider that that anxiety deserves to be recognised and if he can reach a conclusion before March 1995, he should do so? The House would be grateful for an early decision on the matter, which is of considerable significance to many people in the coalfield.
§ Mr. Eggar
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention and the way that he put it. He did not hear the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Bolsover suggesting that the hon. Gentleman should have snapped my arm off. Sometimes gentle persuasion is more effective. I listened carefully to what he said.
I understand both the valuable work that BCE does and the inevitable uncertainty that exists at the moment and I shall certainly be considering the advice that we have received from British Coal as soon as I reasonably can, but I would not want to be constrained to any timetable.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Coal Industry (Restructuring Grants) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.